Growing up in the U.S. with people in service roles bending over backwards to cater to customers’ every will in a strange cultural phenomenon called Customer Service, it can be hard to get used to the lack of customer service in European culture at first. Waiters aren’t as attentive, grocery store workers won’t offer to help you find what you’re looking for, and if someone thinks you are wasting their time, they will let you know with a sour look on their face – or they might even tell you so.
I see nothing wrong with this directness – indeed, most of the Europeans I’ve talked to find it refreshing, and are instead distrustful of Americans’ fake smiles and over-friendly mannerisms. While I can’t say I prefer European culture, I respect it was a cultural difference that is – as my friend Tommy would say – neither better nor worse, just different.
However, one cultural aspect I’ve noticed that I DO dislike is how it’s much more socially acceptable, or at least more common, to be completely rude to strangers. Now, #NotAllGermans are like this – I’ve met loads of really nice Germans who are perfectly capable of superficial politeness and passive-aggressive smiles. But already in my short time here, I’ve experienced or been witness to many unpleasant experiences involving usually-older Germans being incredibly and unnecessarily rude to other people, which shocked me as you almost never see that where I’m from.
Example: I’m at the German embassy in Copenhagen to apply for a visa. I’ve just arrived in the city, am a bit flustered, and was definitely not expecting to have to speak German. Before I can do anything, I have to apply for a blocked bank account in which to deposit funds to prove I can support myself during my time here. It’s my turn in line, and the receptionist looks at me expectantly. I clear my throat and say, in German, “I would like to open a bank account.
She looks at me like I’m stupid and says with acid in her voice, “We’re not a bank.” I’m speechless, and while I’m stuttering trying to explain, her colleague comes over and explains the blocked account and what is necessary to do to open one. She glances back at me and tells me to take a seat – no apology or anything – then moves on to the next person.
Another time, I’m sitting in an U-Bahn (subway train. The next stop arrives, the doors open, and more people get in. A young man with headphones in sits down next to the door. An old woman gets on, looks at him, and says, “That seat is reserved for Behinderte,” using a not-so-politically-correct word for people of limited mental of physical capacity.
He ignores her, and she sits down one seat over – there was plenty of space, it’s not like she had to stand. But instead of getting over herself, she lights in on the young man. “Can’t you see? That seat is meant for cripples! All the young people, they have no respect these days…” (I’m not even joking, she actually said that.) And when another man sitting next to her gently suggested that the sign was a big difficult to notice – being quite small, and well above eye level – she started in on him as well.
More recently, I was on a train platform late at night waiting to change. I walked down the length of the platform to see if there were any open chairs to sit in, and found one group of four chairs with two women sitting in them. One was a very old woman with a small shopping bag perched on the edge of the seat next to her. The other was a middle-aged woman with two large handbags taking up the entire seat next to her. Deciding I would rather bother the younger woman than the older one, I pointed to the two bags and asked, “May I sit here?”
The woman’s eyes hardened. “There’s a place free right there,” she said. Oh great, one of THOSE Germans, I thought, feeling my blood pressure rise. I rolled my eyes and sat in the next seat over. The old woman smiled at me and quickly set her little shopping bag on the ground to make room for me.
Several minutes of tense silence ensued, the middle-aged woman and I avoiding each other out of our peripheral vision. I tried vainly to read an article on my phone, but couldn’t concentrate. After several minutes, she let out a low growl – I’m not even kidding you, she literally growled at me – in the back of her throat. Our stalemate over, I looked at her.
“I mean, I just don’t understand what the problem is, if there is a space free,” she burst out. “Why should I have to move my bags if there is a space free?”
“I don’t understand why your bags need a seat,” I retorted.
“Yes, but there is a space free!”
I glanced over at the old woman. She was smiling, revealing a mouthful of broken teeth, and babbling softly in a language that might have been Polish. “I didn’t want to disturb the old woman,” I explained. “But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
The old woman got up. A young man sat down in her place. A minute later, a middle-aged man came over, pointed at the two handbags, and asked to sit down. The rude woman immediately removed them without complaint. A moment later, even though no train was coming, she got up and walked away. Go figure.
Like I said, #NotAllGermans are extremely rude like this. But these incidents happen with such frequency as to be impossible to ignore, leading me to assume it must somehow be more culturally acceptable to behave like that here.